For the past two years I have been presenting an adult class on Sunday mornings. One set of classes covered St. Paul the Man, another set of classes covered Church history, another set looked at the New Testament. This fall I began a set of classes which I have titled, The Beginning of the Church. I chose this topic because many people do not have a good knowledge of early church teachings and doctrine, how and why they developed.
The Catholic Church gave the world the Bible, the Church didn’t come from the Bible. The Bible is not a historical record of events, but it is a book of FAITH. The New Testament is the most reliable of ancient texts. The earliest copies date to the early 200’s. The originals of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have not survived, but their copies have survived. Copies written from texts less than a hundred years old. If the four Gospels were written from 50-110 AD as most scholars and theologians believe, then the copies of the manuscripts that exist today are very close to their sources. How reliable are they since they are copies, we may ask? The ancient Christians were copying the New Testament, seeing and believing it to have been inspired by God, they also used the books for study and in worship.
Were they really sloppy and careless? I do not believe so. They understood it to be a sacred task, not something to be taken lightly. The New Testament contains four Gospels, but more were written. How were the four Gospels chosen, if there were more? The early Church Fathers referenced and talked about the other gospels when they complied the New Testament, but they used a fourfold criteria to choose which gospels they placed in the New Testament. 1) The gospel needed to be rooted in an Apostle, or a follower of an Apostle, thus Apostolic tradition, 2) it needed to have wide spread acceptance and usage in the early Christian communities, 3) known for its orthodoxy, fitting with other books, not having strange ideas, and 4) used in liturgy in the different communities.
If we look to early Church Fathers we can see Justin Martyr (150 AD) writing about three gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke. St. Irenaeus (170 AD) writes about the harmony of four gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is the writings of Origen (182 AD) who designated as the “New Testament” the collection of Christian scriptures that we would recognize as the New Testament Canon. His list was shorter than what is found in the New Testament today, but he acknowledged as scripture the Four Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, the fourteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John and the Revelation of John. St. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in his thirty ninth festal letter in 367 AD, listed the twenty seven books that we know as the New Testament. The process of selection of which books were included in the New Testament grew out of the life of the early Christian community, as that community used those books and found someof them more valuable than others. They were not imposed or forced upon the people.
I invite anyone to join us for our Sunday morning 10:00 am class on the Beginning of the Church.